Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Chinese Mud-Skipper

This unusual little craft -- and I emphasize the "little" -- may be among the oldest plank-built boats still in recent use. According to G.R.G. Worcester in The Junks & Sampans of the Yangtze (1971), a Chinese history written in 90 B.C. attributes its invention to the Emperor YΓΌ, (2205 B.C.). So it's clearly more than 2,100 years old, and possibly more than 4,200 years old if the ancient text is to be believed.

ni-mo-ch'uan from The Junks & Sampans of the Yangtze, G.R.G. Worcester. Click to enlarge.
 The boat is known as the ni-mo-ch'uan, literally "mud-touching boat." It is used on mud flats when they are exposed at low water to collect a highly prized edible snail.

The ni-mo-ch'uan is a tiny form of sampan, being built of three 1/2-inch planks and subdivided by bulkheads. The one shown is 6' LOA and a mere 9-1/2" beam, with sides only 3-1/2" high. At just 1-1/3 cubic feet, this may be the smallest hull, by volume, of any known boat.

The transom features a semicircular cutout that is key to the method of propulsion. The shellfisherman kneels in the stern, with one knee on the bottom board and his shin resting in the cutout. The other leg he extends over the side of the boat, and uses it to propel the boat by pushing with his foot against the mud. He supports his upper body by holding onto the crossbar, which is raised about 18" above the boat's bottom. Worcester days that "progress is achieved quite rapidly" over the mud in this manner. Captured snails are kept in a basket in the bow.

The hull is rockered at the bow, to assist the boat in moving over the mud, and flat astern, to maximize buoyancy beneath the operator. Worcester notes the limber beneath the transom notch, to drain water, but it's unclear how this would not permit more water to enter than it allows to drain out. Perhaps it was stopped with a wood plug or a twist of grass and mud when the boat was afloat.

When observed by Worcester, the boat was "indigenous to the Shanghai area," and similar craft were "used in most of the shallow lakes and in the Tungting Lake, being diverted from their ordinary purpose and used for duck shooting."

Worcester relates a tale in which this most diminutive of boats was used successfully as a ship of war during the Ch'ing dynasty (which lasted from 1644 to 1911; I wish he'd been a little more specific):

"It is recorded that a town on Hangchow Bay was once attacked by pirates whose boats had grounded on the mud flats by the falling tide. A certain enterprising and warlike villager called together all the owners of the mud-touching boats and at night proceeded out to the stranded pirates, who, being taken completely by surprise, were all either killed or captured."


  1. What an interesting boat. I imagine the guys who attacked the pirates went in by night, when the pirates would have assumed they were safe and might have gone to sleep.

  2. In England we just still have the mud-horse fishermen of the Bristol Channel. Not really a boat but the principle is the same.

  3. Edwin: Fascinating. Thanks. Yes, the principle behind the mud-horse appears to be much the same over the mud. The ni-mo-ch'uan has the added advantage of being able to float, so you could cross areas of deeper water separating two mudbanks, or even use it as a general purpose dinghy in a pinch.

  4. This hull form resembles that of one end of a "long chu'an" (dragonboat) of the southern china pattern.